Bush: America "called to defend freedom"

In the most momentous speech of his presidency, Bush calls for a long, hard war against terrorism.

By Gary Kamiya

Published September 21, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

President Bush asked the American people Thursday night to be prepared for a protracted and difficult war against global terrorism, saying America was "a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom."

In a momentous 30-minute address to Congress delivered nine days after terrorists carried out the most deadly nonmilitary attacks on the United States in its history, Bush sought to rally public support for a new kind of war. "Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution," Bush said. "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done."

Speaking in a resolute tone in which confidence was tempered by seriousness, Bush threw down the gauntlet to Afghanistan's ruling Taliban party, demanding that it immediately hand over suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and all other terrorists. "These demands are not open to negotiation or discussion," Bush said to one of the loudest of the speech's many interruptions by bipartisan applause.

Bush also put all states that harbor or support terrorism on warning. "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists," Bush said.

In perhaps the speech's most emotional moment, Bush showed the badge of a New York City policeman who died trying to save others. "I will not forget this wound to our country, or those who inflicted it," he said in a passage that resonated with the feeling of a personal pledge. "I will not yield. I will not rest."

It was by all accounts the finest speech of Bush's young presidency. Facing a situation that called for him to display the talents of both commander in chief and diplomat, to walk a line between excessive bellicosity and irresolution, Bush passed the test.

Bush made it clear that military tactics alone would not suffice in what he called a war between "freedom and fear." "We will direct every resource at our command, every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence and every necessary weapon of war to the disruption and defeat of the global terror network," Bush said.

Bush warned the American people that the war would not be like the Gulf War or U.S. involvement in Kosovo, where military success was dramatic and casualties virtually nonexistent. "Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen," he said. "It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success."

Bush did not go into specifics about the kind of military action the United States might take. But as he spoke, a major military buildup was underway, with the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt cruising toward the Mediterranean to join two carriers already in the Persian Gulf region. Aircraft and land forces were also on the move.

With British Prime Minister Tony Blair in attendance, the president cast the struggle against terrorism not as America's alone but as the responsibility of the world. He noted that people from 80 other nations died in the attacks, and called for all the nations of the world to take part in the fight against terrorism. Saying that the attackers were motivated by hatred of America's freedom, Bush called them "the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century."

"By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions -- by abandoning every value except the will to power -- they follow in the path of fascism and Nazism and totalitarianism," Bush said. "And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends, in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."

The speech showed Bush clearly aware of the political and diplomatic minefields lying ahead in a war whose initial struggle, at least, is likely to pit the United States against an Islamic regime. But the president made sure to articulate that America's struggle was not with Islam or the Arab world, but with terrorists practicing what he called a perversion of a "good and peaceful" teaching.

"I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith ... The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them."

Bush also announced the creation of a new Cabinet-level post, the Office of Homeland Security, to be headed by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.

Perhaps the only question raised by Bush's speech was whether he had raised Americans' expectations too high by promising ultimate victory in a battle against a foe no modern nation has ever defeated.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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George W. Bush